To ease California’s homeless crisis and boost affordable housing, cities across the state are slowly embracing so-called tiny homes.
In Sacramento, Mayor Darrell Steinberg wants his city to spend $30 million to jump-start the rapid production of these structures, which are sometimes just 500 square feet or less.
Steinberg, who chairs the state’s commission on homelessness, said other local governments should follow his lead.
He said cities will never produce the volume of affordable housing needed by subsidizing only standard-sized apartments. Especially when each individual apartment unit can cost upwards of $500,000 dollars to develop.
“My hope is that with a little bit of financial incentive, hopefully less than $100,000 per unit, that we will spark a series of new industries in California that will make tiny homes, efficiency homes, cargo units, tent cabins the norm — not just the exception,” Steinberg said.
The mayor said tiny homes won’t replace more traditional affordable housing, but should serve “as a clear alternative, especially as we are trying to address the fact that 90,000 Californians are unsheltered and homeless.”
Sacramento County’s homeless population jumped 19 percent over the past two years, to nearly 5,600, according to a recent count. Last month, Californians listed homelessness as the top concern in the state, tied with jobs and the economy, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey.
Two housing advocates said tiny homes can help, though their role should be more limited than what Steinberg is proposing.
Chris Martin, legislative advocate on homelessness with the nonprofit Housing California, said years of research show people need a “fully functioning home,” something most tiny homes don’t offer.
“A lot of times in a tiny home, you’re missing things like running water or electricity or even toilets that flush,” Martin said. “And I think key and core to housing especially for those that are high need is giving them services that they need to remain housed.”
Anya Lawler, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, added: “We aren’t necessarily opposed to tiny homes and similar things given the number of people on the streets, but don’t necessarily see them as a large-scale solution either.”
Steinberg said some zoning changes would be needed to allow for tiny homes in Sacramento. He did not specify where the homes could be located. Money to subsidize them would be “created by bonding on future Measure U revenues,” and placed in a new Housing Trust Fund for affordable housing, according to the mayor’s spokesperson. Steinberg plans to make a formal proposal to the City Council later this year.
This is not the first time Steinberg has called for more tiny homes.
In his January 2018 State of Downtown address, he announced a plan to build up to 1,000 tiny homes using hundreds of housing vouchers to pay for the construction, according to the Sacramento Bee.
Asked about those plans last week, Steinberg said he’s now focused on using the future Measure U revenues for the homes.
Other communities, such as Oakland and Berkeley, have helped pay for tiny home villages for homeless youth. One such project in Oakland includes units that are 8-by-10 feet and cost about $12,500 to build.
They have “a loft bed, a living area, a closet, electricity, a desk and a chair, and a heating system. The village will have a communal kitchen, a communal living space, an art space, and bathrooms,” according to a Berkeleyside news article.
Earlier this month, San Diego officials said they plan to begin allowing movable tiny houses in backyards across the city.
Yet those projects are limited, said Steinberg, adding that he hopes Sacramento can spark a big change in the nascent tiny home movement.
“There are a number of different innovators and entrepreneurs that are working on this, but nothing has gone to scale,” he said. “And I believe we need a Silicon Valley moment in California around efficiency housing.”
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Sacramento's homeless population increased 19 percent over the past two years. It was Sacramento County.
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